A little over a week ago we all welcomed the first day of fall. This means soup is soon to be more enjoyable, football season is in full swing, and altogether life is bound to be better as cooler weather rolls in. It also means that basketball is right around the corner!
Thursday marked the official start to a new Liberty Flames basketball season as Coach McKay held the team’s first practice of the 2021-2022 season. As it seems to be with all Liberty teams nowadays, expectations are sky high as Coach McKay looks to lead the team to a fourth consecutive ASUN title (something that no team in ASUN history has ever accomplished) on the way to another trip to the Big Dance. ASOR had a chance to catch up with a couple of players, along with Coach McKay, after practice. Check out what they had to say and start preparing yourself for another exciting season of Flames Basketball!
Junior | F | #22
Q: “First day official practice. How did it feel to get back out there with the guys? A lot of familiar faces gone from last year and just acclimating yourselves to this group?
A: “This summer was really great for us. We got to get more practice time with everybody cause we had a trip to Puerto Rico kind of use more team bonding stuff too. I feel like we have great chemistry going into our first practice today already, which was an advantage for us, for sure. We got a great group, a young group too, but we’re really eager to learn and really hard working.”
Q: “When you look at the dynamic of this team, when you first got here, Georgie, was at point guard and last year you guys had CP and now this year you don’t have that veteran presence at point guard. What have you seen from these young guards that can step in and run the offense like Georgie and Chris did over the past few years?”
A: “You know, I think coach does a great job recruiting guys that know how to have patience. We got guys like Drake that did a great job for us last year. We took a grad transfer in CP, he did a great job learning…has really good control of what we’re trying to do, offensively-defensively, and coach is always on him about just trying to be a coach on the court. He’s done a really good job of that this summer. The freshmen come along really well. Like I said, that Puerto Rico trip really just gave you an extra boost in terms of who’s ready to go, who’s doing a really good job over the summer, now transitioning into the school year. It’s been great.”
Q: How vital is that guard play to the success of this team in terms of initiating the offense? Also, being a catalyst on defense of being that person high up on the defense who is able to stop the ball, dribble penetration, and able to get you guys set up?
A: “I think especially for a defensive minded team, those guards are vital on the ball, creating habits on defense and keeping everybody out on the pack, getting us organized. But offensively, like you said, to getting everybody connected, being a leader, and then we got some other guys, like me and Keegs, to help get us organized offensively as well and take some pressure off of them…especially against some of those teams that like trap and really pressure the play.
Q: As a player, former athletes that come through the program probably have a good or a big influence on the team’s work ethic and different areas of your game so can you speak a little bit to what it’s been like to have former players such as Myo, Zach, Luke and others around the program throughout the summer and over the past year?
A: “It definitely brings a different dynamic and we always use the buzz word like family, but it truly is a family here to have guys that have been around it and want to see you succeed. They kind of help you through the learning curves and the pack line and be there with you everyday skill development wise. So it’s been really cool. They work hard and I’m glad they’re on our team.”
Q: Last year, carrying into this year, for you personally, what have been the things that you have set as goals for yourself improve on, and how have you seen yourself evolve throughout the summer in those areas?
A: “I think leadership for me has always been kind of a growing part, especially for our team. We got great guys around me so in the summertime you try to develop your game, but also develop your game to how you can help the team win this year. I’ve been really working on knocking down shots, play-making with the ball, without the ball, by setting screens, just different areas like that, where I can help the team win. Guarding one through four, one through five, whatever coach needs me to do. I think those are the biggest aspects for sure.”
Fans will have their first opportunity to pack Liberty Arena this season. When asked to speak on the excitement that comes with this Kyle said, “We’re super grateful that we have the chance to play in Liberty Arena. Our athletic department did an amazing job and not getting to break it in at full capacity last year I’m sure they were disappointed, but had to make sure everybody was safe…it’ll be fun this year, for sure. Like you said, the big games, maybe the games that you guys don’t think are as big, but for us, we take every game with the same approach. We’re excited to break it in for sure.”
Coach McKay later echoed these sentiments as he compared a packed Vines Center to some of the most tough environments in college basketball such as Cameron Indoor, the Dean Dome and the Carrier Dome. He believes that the home atmosphere should be “worth a few points” and could build some momentum in fan and student experiences on its way to becoming one of the best college basketball venues.
Sophomore | G | #0
Q: “Drake, you got a chance to play a lot last year, learn from guy like Chris Parker and really understand this offense and defensive schemes. How has that prepared you in possibly coming in and filling that role this year, along a lot of other young dynamic players there in the back court?”
A: “Yeah, Chris was a really good guy for me to learn under. He had a lot of experience. He was a veteran for sure out there and he just made me so much better. I mentioned the other day at practice not only offensively, but defensively as well. He was super shifty with the ball and knew how to get to his spots. I watched him a lot and I learned from him how to take a guy at different angles, how to go on one-on-one against a big. I learned a lot from him last year. I feel a lot better and more confident this year.”
Q: Do you feel like you’re in position to take over that type of role that he had last year and be that guy who’s on the court and being a general for, not only the offense, but also the defense?
A: “Yeah. I feel super comfortable now in that role, but whatever coach wants from me this year. I’m willing to go out there and do whatever it takes for him.”
Q: How important was the Puerto Rico trip, not only for you, but for these other young guards, like Brody and Venzant and DJ to get you guys acclimated to the system so that way, first day of practice, you guys are refining things, not trying to play catch up?
A: “Yeah, it was super important. It was nice to get everyone some reps ,you know, live game reps out there. We’ve got a lot of new guys. Even for me, it’s good just to get some more game reps out there. We learned a lot out there in Puerto Rico. Just like the way we play defense and coming back here now we have a lot of connectivity out on the court and we’re super confident now that we know our roles and what to do on defense and offense.”
Q: “Drake, for you, how have the adjustments to the pack line defense changed since your first time walking on campus? Do you feel like the game has slowed down a lot for you on the defensive side of the ball?
A: “Yeah, for sure. It took me a while to figure out the pack. So last year coming in, COVID year, didn’t get to learn too much during the summer so it kind of hit me full force right when the season started. But, once we got halfway through the season I started to get better at it. You know the summer for sure helped me a lot just to learn it at a higher level. I was going a little bit too fast last year, but now I’ve been able to slow down a little bit. Our coaches, they do a great job of teaching us habits every single day so I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Coach Ritchie McKay
Q: “How was the first practice today, getting these guys out here? I know the Puerto Rico trip helped out a lot. Did you see the fruits of the summer workouts come to bear?
A: “Yeah, this is my thirty-second D1 first practice so I can’t remember the other ones very well, but I was just happy to not be restricted by time. I thought our guys brought a lot of energy and passion to the floor, which is usually par for the course for them. It was good to be out there and at least this day signifies the regular season tip is around the corner, so excited about that for sure.”
Q: “You’ve been blessed over the last few years with really solid guard play with Georgie at the point, Lovell, Chris Parker last year. When you look at the makeup of this team, you got Drake, who got some experience last year, some valuable experience behind CP, but then you have a lot of new faces and then you throw in Darius as well. Is that a position that you want to see these guys work for here heading into the season opener?
A: “Yeah, having a chance to have practiced a bit in the summer and go to Puerto Rico I think our guards are learning quickly what our expectation is of them on both ends of the floor, not just offensively. Even though we have a really inexperienced group, I think we have, if you count Covid years, I think we have Keegan, Darius, and Blake who are not underclassmen and that concerns me a little bit. At the same time, Dame you’ve seen us play enough. we’ve been fortunate that guys that wait to play and when it was their turn they stepped up and they fulfilled a role that was necessary or valuable for us to have a chance to win. We’re going to keep trying to build into that daily. I like our group. I’ll tell you that.”
Q: ” Can you just talk a little bit about how important it is having someone like Myo Baxter-Bell on the sideline to help out as in his new position?”
A: “Well, we have three guys now that have been in the program as players who are helping us out, Luke McKay, Zach Farquhar, Myo Baxter-Bell. What Myo did for us programmatically, we are not here with championship banners without Myo Baxter-Bell. I’ve seen such a maturation from his arrival here to right now in his person and his ability to communicate, articulate, to guys what it’s like to play for me and our staff. He’s been invaluable. He puts on a smile every day, he’s a joy to be around. He’s got a great future in this profession. When he gets out there with him he’s hard to guard, so we like throwing them in a drill or two to get our forwards used to what the physicality at this level is like, but I love having him.”
Q: “As far as the incoming freshmen go how have they adjusted so far? What do you encourage the veterans on the team to do to kind of help them to be able to adjust and feel more comfortable in the new environment that is college?”
A: “You know, our freshmen, we’ve had a numerous amount of days to recruit them. Because of the pandemic we didn’t get a chance to evaluate their senior year, but we had our work done early on Brody Peebles and Joseph Venzant so this is just more relationship building. Those guys committed and watched us play and came to campus so they kind of had a feel for what our culture is like, what kind of words are present in our atmosphere. So their transition, I think, has been a little easier than DJ and Bryson, but I think if you’re a freshman in our program, you automatically get integrated because of the older guys, the more experienced guys and their humility. They embrace you without conditions, there’s no hazing and stuff like that. We are just really blessed to have a group of people that are really committed to being a part of something bigger than ourselves. I think that makes the freshmen transition easier off the floor. The on the floor is a different story. Look, they’re gonna have to get used to the pace of play, the physicality at this level, and how important and valuable each possession is. But, the only thing you could do with that is have skin in the game, mistakes that will happen on the floor. We won’t get to that until the scrimmages and regular season.”
Q: “Coach, when you compare your roster from last year and your roster this year, where do you feel like the biggest positive change is and the strengths that have been added to this 2021 roster or developed through the off-season?
A: “I try not to compare teams because one thing I’ve learned in my old age…I had a speaking engagement the other night and they introduced me as someone that’s ahead of us. So since I’m ahead of them in my journey I try and stay away from, you know, trying to replicate the previous year or previous years teams because the chemistry on the team is very elusive. It’s always different. I do think we have an exceptional leader in Kyle Rode. I think Keegan McDowell and what he’s been through, the character that he showed in coming back, the humility that he displayed. I think there’s a chance for such unbelievable player led leadership and ownership in our deal that I feel like I got to let them do that. I feel like I can say less because they can say more and we trust them with it. So now it’s just a matter of people stepping up into roles that are going to give us a chance to, to get the desired outcome.”
Q: “As far as your own growth as a coach and as a leader specifically, what can you say has been the biggest area or areas of growth in you since you returned to the mountain several years ago?”
A: “I think there’s many that share in our growth as a program. So I’m very thankful for the people that God has put around me and the privilege I get to lead a group of young men that I think are fabulous. I’ve said this before in other interviews. I was in a hurry as a head coach early in my career to try and get to the tournament and win a championship, get to the Final Four, Sweet 16, whatever, and because of that, I think I matured emotionally and gained an appreciation for being at Liberty. So what’s different about me. I think I’m a little bit healthier in terms of what I think success looks like. I’m not so caught up in what the world deems important in terms of the scoreboard. I know that the position I have, although, subject to criticism, blame as well as the other good stuff or positive stuff, more important to me are the lives that I get entrusted with. I think that my desire to build into those lives in such a way that, they’re better or the experience they have has allowed them a deeper rooted growth then we’ve been successful individually and as a leadership team. I think that pursuit was cloudy because of my own interference earlier in my days and now I think the sun or the Son has removed the clouds.”
Q: “Just thinking of people that God has put in your life, you got a specific person that was in the audience today, Coach Bennett. Can you talk a little bit about the impact he’s had on you?”
A: “Yeah, that was a pleasant surprise, you know. I didn’t know he was coming and he told me that was the first practice he’s been to that hasn’t been his own that he could remember. Especially as a head coach, I think he said he saw practice at Iowa when he was a grad assistant or something. So I’m honored by that. That family has meant a whole lot to me. His dad, Dick Bennett was and is is a mentor of mine. I think he’s one of the greatest coaches if not the greatest college coach of all time. I think his son is, if Dick Bennett is 1A then Tony Bennett is 1B, so I learned a lot from him and my time with him and still learn to this day….We’re really, really blessed and honored that they were at practice.”